Because I Could Not Stop For Death

How I learned to stop worrying and love "Elden Ring"

Having fought and wandered and grinded for over 75 hours, I finally approach the only open door to Leyndell, Royal Capital and home of the Erdtree, to find it blocked by magic fog and a horse-mounted soldier-knight-dragon thingy—the Draconic Tree Sentinel.

I summon some ghost soldiers to help, take a swig from the Flask of Wondrous Physick, mount my ghostly horse-goat friend Torrent and then ride into battle. After a brief skirmish, I die. I switch out some weapons, craft some “poison grease” to coat my mace with, and summon a giant magical jellyfish that spits poison. I ride into battle again. I die again. Next, I try using talismans that resist fire (the boss is part dragon) and lightning (it has lightning powers for some reason) but end up trampled by the dude’s horse.

I research some tomes of ancient eldritch knowledge — or as we say in our world, I Google elden ring draconic tree sentinel cheese. I learn the location of an incantation that spreads poisonous fog, then go there and kill a giant insect to get it. I visit the Queen of the Full Moon to be reborn as someone who had spent more time studying magic.

In addition to improving my loadout, I also work on my strategy. A blog post reminds me of an important lesson: enemies in the Lands Between are blind as shit. For my next attempt, I crouch-walk behind the Draconic Tree Sentinel until I’m right behind his horse’s butt. He has no idea I’m there. I use my Dragon Seal to cast the Poison Mist spell. Green gas envelops the Sentinel; his health starts slowly ticking down. He remains oblivious to me even as I keep blowing poison fart gas at him, stopping often to drink from my magic-power-refill flask.

Finally, out of magic power, but with the Sentinel down to 10% health, I quietly back away and mount my horse, finally officially starting the battle with two katana slices to the enemy horse’s flank. One more slash after that and he’s done, unblocking my way to the next thing.

After what’s now more like 76 hours over 2-3 months, I’m maybe 30% through Elden Ring.

Choosing your own adventure

Shortly before the game came out in February, Elden Ring director Hidetaka Miyazaki was profiled by Simon Parkin in The New Yorker. In interviews, he explained why his games are so challenging:

“I’ve never been a very skilled player,” Miyazaki told me recently, via Zoom. He was sitting in his office, a book-lined room in the Shinjuku ward of Tokyo. “I die a lot. So, in my work, I want to answer the question: If death is to be more than a mark of failure, how do I give it meaning? How do I make death enjoyable?”

Not having played any of Miyazaki’s games before Elden Ring, I had a hard time understanding how, exactly, these games were so hard — like, in what specific ways were they so forbidding — and yet so beloved.

In a nutshell, Elden Ring is an action role-playing game set in a dark-fantasy world full of undead-looking knights and creepy monsters, a format and hella-goth aesthetic it shares with Miyazaki’s Dark Souls series. (While FromSoft calls Elden Ring the start of a new franchise, it’s similar to Souls in enough respects that fans consider it a spiritual successor.)

The first way the game is challenging is its character-building aspect: unlike (say) Zelda where there’s only one Link with only one sword, your avatar in Elden Ring can be any of a dozen starting classes with different aptitudes, then you build from there. My character in Elden Ring started as a samurai. At the time I didn’t know anything about what any of the stat numbers meant; I just thought the samurai was cool.

One of the game’s ongoing core mechanics is grinding for “runes,” which serve as both experience points (XP) and currency. You earn runes when you kill enemies, and you can also find them laying around as loot or get them for selling your extra stuff to a merchant. You spend runes when you want to level up your character — in return for an ever-increasing amount of runes, you can add one stat point to one of your character’s attributes. These stat upgrades are mostly permanent, and they determine what kinds of attacks or defenses you’ll be good at later on, so you have to invest wisely.

But “wisely” can be a local maximum — Elden Ring doesn’t have a single set way to win, and it’s designed to allow players the freedom to make their own path. I hear that lots of players go all-in on magic, only using swords and shields as a backup. Others do the opposite, spending all their runes on building the strongest, buffest, tankiest warriors possible.

My samurai has turned out to be what’s called a “bleed build”, meaning my weapons and attributes are good for inducing a status effect whereby several successive sword hits fill up an invisible “bleeding” meter that, when filled, takes out a huge chunk of enemies’ health.

This is very helpful because of another way the game is hard: Souls-style combat is unforgiving. Enemies move faster, reach further, and hit harder than in other games, and everything you do to either attack or defend uses up part of your stamina meter, so you can’t just mash buttons or hide behind a good shield forever.

What’s more, where most games try to arrange enemies and dungeons in roughly ascending order of difficulty, with easier stuff closer to the starting point to help you ease into things, Elden Ring starts hard and stays hard. Elden Ring puts two of its hardest bosses near the starting point, with a big golden pointer saying “go here!” (Do not go there; you’ll die.)

Miyazaki’s games put the player in charge of managing their experience, and part of that is knowing (or learning through brutal trial and error) that doing great things requires training and preparation. As Erik Hinton writes in the media newsletter Dirt:

Every flesh failure, every ill-timed backstep or over-zealous zweihanding, is met with the sad and immediate chimes of disgrace. Your character disappears into ash. “You Died” is stamped on the screen.

In a game where death is just a small tax on your time as you learn the rhythm of bosses, I do not fear death. It is a training partner. As a result, Elden Ring feels more like a sport than a story.

As much as Elden Ring and the Souls games like to rub death in your face — the YOU DIED banner, in all-caps Times New Roman on a goth-black background, is to Miyazaki as Futura Bold is to Wes Anderson — they actually make death pretty painless.

When you die, you drop all the runes (which, again, are just money) you’re carrying at the spot where you died. And they stay there, safe, unless you die again without collecting them. Depending on where that is, that could be a loss (if it’s inside the lair of a boss you haven’t mastered, kiss those runes goodbye) or it could be trivial to just ride by on your horse and pick them back up. Runes and time are the only things you lose when you die, and thanks to auto-saving and relatively frequent checkpoints, you don’t lose that much time.

In the online fan community, certain too-good-to-be-true abilities or exploits in the game are called “broken,” e.g. “Hoarfrost Stomp was the most broken weapon skill in the game until they nerfed it.” I love this choice of word, even though it reflects a certain Stockholm Syndrome mentality where Souls fans assume that something being easy in these games must be a bug.

In that spirit, I’ve started to feel like it’s broken that, in Elden Ring, you can dash into a hostile environment where death is certain, run around grabbing Golden Runes and other loot, and then when you die you lose any runes you were carrying but keep the loot. If your goal in a certain area is just to grab something that’s being guarded by a tough enemy, oftentimes you just need to run past the enemy and grab it, then let them kill you, which returns you to your last checkpoint ready to do something else. (At these moments I will try to spend all my extra runes so I’m only risking the game’s equivalent of, like, $10.)

Elden Ring‘s fantasy world is nothing like ours, but the choices and strategies it calls for can feel very much like real life. How and where you choose to spend your time has consequences that play out over time in subtle ways, and because your experience in Miyazaki’s gonzo mythology world is shaped by your choices, it can feel lived-in and real.


The Movements

In the New Yorker article, Miyazaki commented on his games’ extreme difficulty:

“I do feel apologetic toward anyone who feels there’s just too much to overcome in my games,” Miyazaki told me. He held his head in his hands, then smiled. “I just want as many players as possible to experience the joy that comes from overcoming hardship.”

“Hardship,” of course, is relative — in a video game you’re mashing buttons to help a character on a screen overcome imaginary problems, which is nothing compared to having to deal with real-life death or disaster. But that’s kind of the point. Video games are a safe space in which to fall down and get back up again, and it can feel exhilarating when practice pays off and you don’t die.

The last year has been surprisingly hard — it turns out that pandemic/climate-disaster life after vaccines is no less stressful or more fun than it was before! — and I found myself spending a lot more time playing very hard video games.

I burned through Metroid Dread when it came out in October, and then played it through at least eight more times trying to beat my fastest run times. (Dread added a timed boss-rush mode last month; if I’m using a controller with turbo I can get through all the major bosses in less than 15 minutes.) I nearly finished Returnal — actually ranked higher than Elden Ring on GameFAQs’ list of the most challenging games — and played through the original NES edition of Mega Man 2 on my Analogue retro machine (with extra difficulty because vintage controllers are less responsive than modern ones).

Not long after Elden Ring’s release, Ars Technica’s Kyle Orland wrote about its hardness and offered a taxonomy consisting of five types of difficulty in video games:

  • Mechanical difficulty (being able to hit buttons or perform moves precisely)
  • Punishing difficulty (how easy is it to screw up, and how much progress do you lose if you do?)
  • Arcane difficulty (how much or little does the game explain itself to the player)
  • Grindable difficulty (is it possible to flatten the difficulty curve by just spending hours collecting more loot?)
  • Difficulty walls (if you hit an impasse, are you stuck?)

All of the hard games I’ve been playing, including Elden Ring, are mechanically and punishingly difficult according to Orland’s list. Elden Ring generally requires less precision than the hardest parts of Returnal or Metroid, both of which feature lots of bullet-hell sections where sloppy timing will get you killed.

Elden Ring is also grindable whereas these other, more linear games aren’t. In Elden Ring‘s open world you almost always have an option to run away, regroup, and come back stronger. In Metroid, you only get power-ups when the game wants you to have them; in Returnal, a roguelike, on dying you lose everything and start over from the beginning.

But learning to get better at mechanically difficult games can be really satisfying. It’s fun to do something hard (but low-stakes) and make tiny bits of progress each time.

It took me what felt like weeks to get through Returnal‘s Derelict Citadel region the first time, and then more time to finally beat its boss. Mechanically hard games are somewhat cheat-proof; walkthroughs and guides from the internet are only slightly helpful because you still have to master the moves in order to progress. Once I did master them, I felt powerful and capable having achieved something with my own two hands, even if it was just in a video game.


The Falling Leaves Tell A Story

I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to talk about the game’s story, because I think Elden Ring‘s opening, scene-setting cinematic is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in years:

It’s both hard to spoil Elden Ring‘s story, and hard not to. All of Miyazaki’s games have opaque narratives where key information is conveyed via item descriptions and other “flavor text”, instead of cutscenes and dialogue. Any explanation of the plot or backstory risks ruining some surprise, but without an explanation you may not know that what you’re looking at is even part of the story.

With its breathless narration, epic visuals, and soaring music, the into seems to want to establish high stakes and deep pathos in Elden Ring‘s ruined world. Mostly, I just chuckle at how emotional the narrator seems about these ridiculous names, like “the ever-brilliant Goldmask” and “Sir Gideon Ofnir… the ALL-KNOWING!!!

Since I started Elden Ring, I started checking out Miyazaki’s original Dark Souls, originally released in 2011 and recently remastered, on my Nintendo Switch. And it turns out the breathless, context-free, mood-setting intro is yet another FromSoft signature. If anything, Elden Ring‘s intro holds together a bit more than Souls‘s, which may be due to George R.R. Martin contributing to the new game’s backstory and lore.

I literally have no idea if this is a spoiler: most, if not all, of those characters from the intro do show up in the game as NPCs, each with their own lore and side quests. And don’t worry: the ever-brilliant Goldmask can be found hanging out on a bridge in a late-game area.

Everything OK there, Goldmask?

The Meta

Despite having spent non-trivial time and money on video games over the past year, I’m not sure I’d call myself a “gamer.” I mostly play by myself, so there’s a social dimension to gaming I don’t participate in. Gamerdom happens on Twitch streams, Discord servers, subreddits, and of course, in multiplayer.

I’ve been subscribed for a while to a subreddit for fans of Deathloop that consists mostly of folks posting videos of particularly creative or impressive wins. Early on, shortly after the game came out, the videos were of players finding new and interesting ways to defeat the game’s bosses. But nowadays it’s all multiplayer clips, with commentary about whether the losing player was experienced or “noob”, or if their strategy was good or bad. It’s social on top of social — people interacting with each other in the game, then sharing that with more people on Reddit.

What’s great about this for a solo gamer is that there is a wealth of information out there, especially for super-popular games like Elden Ring. YouTube creator and Souls influencer VaatiVidya has posted over a dozen videos about Elden Ring, including this one about how to make your character “overpowered” (or “OP”) from early in the game:

If TL;DW, some key tips are:

  • Find a good rune farming spot, so you can level up quickly. (VaatiVidya and others recommend a spot close to a bridge in Caelid, but FWIW I’m partial to a spot in Stormhill with 5-6 giant trolls, each worth 1,000 runes, just hanging around.)
  • Mining tunnels are great for grabbing stones to upgrade weapons, and you don’t even need to fight or beat all the enemies (but obviously you’ll do even better once you can)

Elden Ring tells you almost nothing about itself, at least not in a clear or linear way. Most open-world games have quest markers telling you the precise distance to your next objective, with voiceovers or other cues to tell you if it’s time to grind or do other stuff before you go to there. Remember how I said Elden Ring gives you a golden arrow that you absolutely should not follow?

Creators have filled the information gap Miyazaki and FromSoft have (intentionally) left open, and because the Souls games have such a hardcore following (and because those games are even more opaque than Elden Ring) the fan materials for this game are plentiful, and polished. For instance, there’s an interactive map helpfully located at eldenringmap.com, marking locations of loot, checkpoints, NPCs, etc. that you’d otherwise have to just find and remember. This is information that you can get in-game in titles like Horizon by e.g. climbing Tallneck robots and unlocking map sections; here, you have to rely on the kindness of strangers.

Speaking of kind strangers, Elden Ring‘s multiplayer is largely all about giving and accepting help with the main campaign — when you’re stuck on a boss, blogs advise that you use one of the game’s weirdly finger-themed multiplayer items to either offer to join someone else’s fight (for risk-free practice) or invite others to join yours.

For weeks, an Elden Ring player known only as “let me solo her” has made themselves available to help beat the game’s hardest boss, Malenia the Blade of Miquella. LMSH carries two katanas, wears nothing but undies and a bucket helmet, and can consistently take down the most forbidding enemy in Miyazaki’s oeuvre. On May 11, LMSH defeated Malenia for the 1,000th time, which would seem almost rude except that most of those were on behalf of random online players who probably really needed the help.

Their handle is both a generous offer and an admonition. The Verge‘s Cameron Faulkner invited someone claiming to be LMSH to their game, tried to help, and was immediately abandoned to die brutally to Malenia’s horrific, very scary “Waterfowl Dance” moves. IGN interviewed someone claiming to be the real LMSH who says they’re OK with accepting help, and that whoever helped Faulkner is a copycat.

Whoever it was, it has to be one of Elden Ring‘s weirdest, best design decisions — and totally in keeping with Miyazaki’s particularly intense humanism — that its multiplayer mode has gamers competing to see who can help each other in the most epic fashion.